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If comic books have taught us anything over the years, it’s unlikely, unassuming, average individuals can become superheroes due to freak happenstance. Every superhero has an origin story.
Enter: Ken Carson.
Originally from Leicester, Carson has been working at That’s Entertainment at 244 Park Ave. in Worcester for more than 30 years. A decade before, he was a faithful customer at the “pop culture emporium’s” first location at 151 Chandler St. This weekend, Carson is symbolically hanging up his cape.
No, this is not a hoax, not an imaginary story! July 22 marks Carson’s final battle as That’s Entertainment’s manager. Now, the question is, how can Carson go on after being faced with his most unbelievable foe yet: retirement?
“I’ll be turning 62 this month, and I’ve been working here half my life but associated with That’s Entertainment, one way or another, for two-thirds of my life,” Carson said. “Every day, I get to interact with somebody over something that I love … It’s a great break in my day to talk comics or, in some cases, talk sports if somebody’s buying baseball cards.”
A time to celebrate
News of Carson’s retirement traveled fast everywhere from Astro City to Wakanda. To accommodate all patrons who would want to give the longtime fixture a fond farewell, a special retirement party for Carson is scheduled from noon to 5 p.m. July 22 at the Park Avenue location. In addition to free lunches (until they run out), this event of food, fellowship and farewells is also boasting 25% off a single item retailing $300 or under (or 15% off a single item retailing over $300), plus the return of Paul B. Howley, the store’s founder, back to his ol’ stomping grounds.
Although Carson’s life was forever changed when he walked through the doors of That’s Entertainment, the seeds of his destiny were planted several years before.
Brother, take my hand
In the summer of ’74, Carson’s mother dragged him and his brother to see their uncle at a Boston hospital.
“They had a spinner rack in the gift shop. And, for whatever reason, when I looked at the spinner rack, I was ready to become a big comic fan,” Carson said. “And I picked up a stack, and bought them and took them home and loved them in a way that I never had before. So, I became like a Marvel zombie at that point. Really, my collecting for decades just built from that moment.”
Carson recalls the stash of comic books he picked up that day, including “The Fantastic Four” No. 150, featuring Ultron-7 crashing the wedding of superheroes Crystal and Quicksilver; and “Marvel Team-Up” No. 26, featuring The Human Torch joining forces with Thor.
As a kid, Carson was almost exclusively into Marvel Comics. “DC seemed very tamed and boring compared to Marvel at the time. And Stan Lee did a good job making me think that I would be a traitor if I read a DC Comic. And it wasn’t until things like Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns; and Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ and ‘Swamp Thing’ that I started to read some DC things.”
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When Carson started collecting comic books, the cover price was 25 cents. With his $5 weekly allowance, he could buy up to 20 comics, unless they were 50-cent double issues. He would continue this practice for years, despite the disgust of some of his elders.
“One day, I was buying a bunch of comics. The mother of a friend was at the checkout to ring me out and she said, ‘Oh, why are you wasting your time with these comics? They’re not for good students like you,’” Carson recalled. “And I had an English teacher at the time, Mr. Moore (at Leicester High School) who complimented me on my vocabulary one day. And he said, ‘You must read a lot,’ and this was in front of the whole class. And I said, ‘I do. I read a lot of science-fiction … But, I think I get most of vocabulary from Marvel Comic books,’ and he just, kind of, waved me off and said, ‘No, you’re not getting anything good from comic books’ … And, then I did really well on the SATs. He said to me, ‘I guess those comic books really did help you out.’ And we laughed about it.”
Pages of the past
In the ‘70s, Carson found two more places to buy comic books, indoors Sundays at the Auburn Antique & Flea Market and during the week at Ephraim’s Book Store on Franklin Street in Worcester.
“There was a guy named Skip (Dalton) at the Auburn Antique & Flea Market, a really nice guy, really encouraged me in collecting, really great to talk to, but he was only there once a week and I couldn’t always make it on that day,” Carson recalled. “Also, at Ephraim’s Book Store, there was a nice guy there who use to let me put back issues on layaway. So these were, like, $2 back issues, maybe occasionally $4 back issue, and he would let me come in and pay 50 cents a week.”
Carson still would buy comic books at the local drugstore. In fact, one of the most sought-after books published during his teen years ,he bought in his hometown.
“I bought ‘Giant-Size X-Men’ off the rack at Leicester Pharmacy in 1975, which is a very valuable comic now, hundreds if not thousands of dollars,” Carson said. “And when I think about it, I still see it through my eyes at the time. I still see my hands reaching for it and picking it up because the cover was so appealing to me. And I remember buying it that clearly. The new X-Men are busting through the image of the old X-Men. It’s a Gill Kane/Dave Cockrum cover. It’s just coming right at you. And it’s a gorgeous thing. And even the name, ‘X-Men,’ I had never encountered and it sounded very intriguing.”
A chat leads to destiny
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Carson regularly bought new comic books at Fabulous Fiction Bookstore on Main Street near Webster Square.
One day, while shopping there, he saw that the store was offering a 10-cent discount on all comics. Puzzled, Carson inquired, “Why?”
“We have to keep up with the competition,” the man behind the counter said.
“Who’s your competition?” Carson asked.
Carson recalled the face of the guy behind the counter blanching at the sheepish inquiry and seeing Bob Jennings, the owner of the store, glaring back at his cashier.
“Well, there’s another comic shop in town,” the cashier said, but he didn’t give any details.
This was the first time Carson heard of another comic shop in town.
“Jennings knew a lot about comics, but he didn’t seem to enjoy retail,” Carson said. “To me, he didn’t seem to enjoy having people in the store. And I was a regular customer. And I spent a lot of money every time I went in but he still made me feel that I was an imposition to him. So, when I heard there was another comic shop, I was interested, just on the basis of, if there is anyone who would be more pleasant to deal with.”
‘A much different environment’
Carson says, “Walking into That’s Entertainment (then on Chandler Street) was just a much different environment. There were people who were interested in talking to you about comics, interested in showing you things that were aligned with things that you were interested in,” Carson said. “They had a bunch of comics behind the counter in Mylar, which I never seen before, which made everything look bright and new and shiny, all these new ‘60s issues. So I was just wowed immediately.”]
(Re)tales of suspense
Paul B. Howley opened That’s Entertainment practically by accident. Running out of room in his house to store comic books, Howley looked into renting warehouse space, and found he could rent a 1,400-square-foot building on Chandler Street for the same price. The space was only going to be used as a warehouse, but because he was there anyway, bagging and pricing comics, he thought he might as well open to the public, with absolutely no advance warning or fanfare.
“On the first day alone, we made enough to pay all the expenses for the first month,” Howley said in 1997 article. And, that’s how a legendary comic book store was born.
“Bob (Jennings) had Worcester to himself at that time. Then Paul (Howley) moved in,” Carson said. “I’m sure Paul felt that he could beat him (Jennings) at customer service. And Paul probably went in on that basis that there was a need for ‘a friendly comic book shop,’ which he called it at the time.”
Because of his first encounter with Howley, Carson, a then 19-year-old comic book reader, immediately started a relationship with That’s Entertainment that continues to this day.
A pop culture destination
Carson says That’s Entertainment’s Chandler Street location is totally different than the Park Avenue store of today. The Chandler Street store was almost entirely comic books, he said, while the Park Avenue store has a wider inventory.
“At Park Avenue, we hear people talking on the phone and saying, ‘I’m at the record store.’ ‘I’m at the video game store.’ ‘I’m at the sports card store.’ ‘I’m at the toy store.’ So, before, at Chandler Street, it was definitely a comic book shop.” It was, as former Worcester Magazine editor Mike Warshaw called it in an article, “a pop culture emporium.’ “He referred to us that way,” says Carson, “That says it all, right there.”
Carson become a regular customer, and quickly became good friends with Howley, as well as a regular fixture in the store.
“Paul wasn’t there all the time, but there was always somebody interesting there. But, Paul, especially, was so enthusiastic and charismatic and it was just fun to hear Paul tell stories and tell jokes,” says Carson. “The store was so small, you could be looking at back-issues at any place in the store and you could hear Paul talking to people and pranking people and joking with people and everybody could be in the same conversation. It was a different environment than you have here (on Park Avenue). Not everything about being in a tiny store is good, but that was a silver lining to it.”
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‘A deep knowledge of comics’
In 1989, Carson already had a reputation as a was a comic book Brainiac, knowing characters’ first appearances, superheroes’ secret identities and in what issues key events occurred, Howley offered Carson a job.
“Part of the reason why I was interested in Ken working for us is he had a deep knowledge of comics and an appreciating of the history of comics,” Howley said. “Also, his sense of humor cracks me up. He has an incredibly clever sense of humor. And I get it when not everybody does. And that was important to me that he was funny. He was friendly. He was very professional. And we knew very early on that he was somebody that we wanted as part of the team.”
At the time, Carson was already a fulltime shipper at Kennedy Die Casting, and balancing two work schedules became too difficult to juggle. Carson was let go from the store, but two years later, though, he was laid off from his other job.
“I told Paul, ‘I wouldn’t be buying as much for awhile until I found a new job.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you think about coming back here and doing some things for us.’ I said, ‘OK, I like to do that, just until I find something better,’” Carson recalled.
Carson started in ’91 at the Chandler Street store. In the next year, That’s Entertainment moved to Park Avenue, which he says was a “more visible, high-profile space. And in those early days, we realized that we would, even accidentally, have people wandering in that weren’t necessarily hardcore fans of comics,” he said. “So we very consciously set up the store so that the things that might appeal to the general public would be at the front of the store, with the feeling that a comic book fan doesn’t mind walking 50 or 75 feet to get to the back issues or the new issues.”
The enterprise also maintains a store located in Fitchburg.
Fairness, honesty, professionalism
Citing his colleague’s secret superpower as being “attention to detail,” Howley said Carson brought a sense of fairness, honesty and professionalism to That’s Entertainment.
“Ken developed our first employee’s handbook and procedures. He worked very hard to establish a benefits program for our staff that is still in place today … And he worked with me to establish a pension plan,” Howley said. “These are things that Ken has thought out and made it so people don’t want to leave. That’s important. And I can definitely tell you that we would not have weathered this pandemic without Ken at the helm, because I would have done something stupid, for sure.”
Destination of the stars
Carson rattles off as series of fond memories from his tenure at That’s Entertainment, which includes in-stores appearances of Billy Mumy (Will Robison from “Lost in Space”) at the Chandler Street store and The Monkees’ Davy Jones; Boston Celtics legends Dennis Johnson (Ken’s favorite Celtic) and Robert Parish, and New England Patriot Adam Vinatieri at the Park Avenue store; in-store musical performances by Cara Brindisi and Robin Lane; and free screenings of the first “Batman” movie with Michael Keaton and the first “Spider-Man” movie with Tobey Maguire, both when they first came out and a series of free Godzilla double-features at the Elm Draught House in Millbury.
One of his personal highlights was in 1997, when That’s Entertainment hosted one of his personal favorite artists, Gene Colan, whose work includes “Daredevil,” “Iron Man,” “Doctor Strange” and “Tomb of Dracula.” Another highlight was hosting Bill Griffith, the creator of the “Zippy the Pinhead” syndicated comic strip in 2007.
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“Bill Griffith doesn’t like comic shops,” says Carson, “and I invited him for years and he would just say, ‘Thanks for the invitation.’ I was thinking how he was always drawing Worcester diners in his strip. So, I called Bill Wallace, executive director at the Worcester Historical Museum, and said to him, ‘I want to create an event that Bill Griffith would want to come to and participate in.’ And he loved Bill Griffith. So, he said that would be great.”
Carson continued, “So, I contacted Griffith and said, ‘We’re doing an event on Worcester’s diners and because you draw these diners into your strips, we would like you to come. I got the Worcester Historical Museum, (and) Richard J.S. Gutman, author of “American Diner Then and Now,” and we’re going to call it “Zippy Comics and Worcester Diners Day,” and within a few minutes he said ‘yes.’ And it was a great event and he had a good time.”
One of the store’s most public doings was when Howley and Carson successfully petitioned the city to change the name of Marmon Place to Lois Lane, in honor of Superman’s longtime love interest. A short private road that runs alongside That’s Entertainment, Marmon Place is 418 feet long and runs from Park Avenue to Federal Place. It was renamed Lois Lane on Dec. 30, 2012.
“Lois Lane was a big deal for me,” Carson said. “That sign will be there, hopefully, for the far future.”
A childhood hero
But, Carson said the best day, by far, at That’s Entertainment was when Rex Trailer came to the store Dec. 10, 2006, for the “Rex Trailer’s Boomtown 50th Anniversary Tour.” “His show, “Rex Trailer’s Boomtown,” was on Boston television from 1956 to 1976. For three-hours-long stretches Saturday and Sunday mornings, children came to the studio and participated in games, sing-alongs and watched cartoons.
“For me, personally, Rex Trailer was just such a giant part of my childhood,” Carson said. “Rex Trailer was like a mythical figure to me. We got such great response from the newspapers and radio stations that we really felt confident that it was going to be successful. That the timing was right,” Carson said. “When the event was scheduled to start, it was really just my relatives there. And I was starting to feel, well, it was a good try but it’s just not going to happen.”
At first, the event was low-key. Trailer was being chatty with everyone, because there weren’t too many people. Then, something miraculous happened. A crowd started forming.
“Rex was sitting and he couldn’t see that a crowd had gathered, so I whispered to his manager, ‘I don’t think Rex realizes that there are a lot of people here at this point.’ And the manager looked up and was a little surprised and he whispered to Rex and Rex stood up,” Carson said. “It was as if he gained six inches in height. He looked out over the crowd and now it wasn’t just a little event where he was going to chat with people and sign something. Now he was going to put on a show. And he plugged in his P.A., strapped on his guitar and sang “Boomtown.”
“Here are all these old people singing a song that we haven’t sung since we were children, all in a big group with Rex Trailer. And so much had changed in all of our lives and in the world that it was no longer this innocent time but we were going to sing this song once more,” Carson recalled. “It was a wonderful moment but we also knew that this was marking the last hurrah, the end of an era for this group of people who didn’t even know each other even but they had in common that experience of having grown up with ‘Boomtown.’ To me, it was the most wonderful experience that I have ever had in this store.”
‘No shortage of experience’
The store’s next era begins July 23, when That’s Entertainment is going to not only have new leadership, but a majority of administrative staff will be women.
“In the 32 years that I have been there, we’ve gone from not having many women in the store, though there were some, to a time two of the three people in senior leadership are women. That’s a big change,” Carson said. “We have so many experienced people here. And that’s very unusual for retail in general. I don’t know if that’s unusual for comic shops. Even though I’m leaving with 30 years of experience behind me, there’s no shortage of experience at That’s Entertainment.”
A big “Dungeons & Dragons” fan, Camille Fowley of Worcester is the new manager of That’s Entertainment, where she’s worked for eight years. For store departments, her expertise is role-playing games and board games, while her administration roles include overseeing the human resources and finance ends of the business.
“Ken really modernized the business,” Fowley added. “It’s great to have a store that serves the community and does well and can provide comics and interests in events but, also, it means the staff is taken care of. I think that has been a big priority for him for a long time, to make sure everybody’s paid well. Everybody gets benefits … It’s the rare workplace that you feel that your boss actually cares what happens to you, and isn’t going to dump you the second something goes wrong.”
An eye for talent
Sorana Gatej of Worcester is the guest experience manager. in charge of marketing and tabletop gaming expert at That’s Entertainment, where she has been working for 15 years. She loves playing “Magic: The Gathering,” artists Frank Frazetta and John Bucema, indie horror and fantasy comics.
“What Ken has always been really good at is seeing the talents that each of our staff member has and elevated them and just expanded on that and putting us in these positions that those talents can flourish in,” Gatej said. “Maybe, he believed in me more than I did even at the beginning and gave me departments to grow and also for me to grow and be a better version of myself. He sees this in all of us and has put us in our best positions possible.”
Originally from Michigan, Pete Beaudoin of Millbury is retail operations manager for That’s Entertainment, a place he has been working at for almost 20 years. With an expertise in comic books, records and toys, Beaudoin keeps track of who buys what and how well it sells. A big record and comic guy, Beaudoin is a reggae and alternative rock lover and an “Akira” fan.
“Ken has been a fantastic manager but also, for me, personally, an older brother influence,” Beaudoin said. “He really helped me develop my patience and figuring out how to interact with people of all different types. I was a pretty impatient person when I started here and Ken has honed me into being a more thoughtful person and made me a better father.”
Also, continuing the mighty That’s Entertainment tradition, Howley’s daughter, Cassandra Wood, has been the director of business operations for the comic book juggernaut since August 2019.
‘More things to create’
In addition to its all new, all different “ X-Force,” That’s Entertainment is expanding its multiverse in a big way. When they first moved to 244 Park Ave., the retail area was 5,000 square feet, plus side rooms and upstairs. Now, with That’s Entertainment’s former tenant Jelly’s Discs bellying up at 246 Park Ave., That’s Entertainment will be adding an additional 7,000 square feet of space, which will double the size of the business in the end.
“We are expanding retail space. We’re hoping to take the pressure off our current space and move a lot of that into here, opening aisles, making the store just more comfortable to be in,” Gatej said. “And, with that, we have gained this giant event space which has helped us now bring in all kinds of new events, some of them are private events…We’re just planning for more than things to create, which we couldn’t do before.”
“Everything with the expansion is going to get better. The record selection is going to be bigger. The board game section is going to be bigger and easier to view. The role-playing games will have more space. The video games can have more space. The comic can be stretched out further,” Beaudoin said, “Now we have a space that more or less doubles the size of the store. Imagine everything that you liked before, having more room to breathe … Now we will carry so many things that before I just wanted to carry but I couldn’t because there was no place to put it.”
Footsteps to follow
As the last issue of his comic book life comes to his final panel, Carson said it feels a little surreal to be leaving.
“My wife has been retired for a year so it feels very natural that I would follow her as soon as I could into retirement. I am ready to simplify my life and do some other things. The freedom that I think I’ll have in retirement appeals to me,” Carson said. “As for me and That’s Entertainment, I will become a shopper here again. Having started here as a shopper and becoming a part of the business for so many years, I am looking forward to coming in as a customer.”Still, it’s hard to understate what a fixture Carson’s been at the store.
“I always have people come up to me who are like in their 30s and they’re six-feet-tall saying to me, ‘I used to come in here when I was a kid with my father and you were here.’ And I always say that I find that shocking and say, ‘Why would you tell somebody something like that? You’re making me feel old,’” Carson jokes. “But, of course, I know it’s the truth. Some of these people who come in here now were brought in by their fathers, and they’re bringing their own kids in.”
Although Carson is the last employee that connects both the Chandler Street and Park Avenue stores, Howley is confident about the store’s future: “I really think that the talents and the judgment and the skills our staff has now is the best we’ve ever had. I’m really confident that things are going to go smoothly. We’re going to miss Ken tremendously. But, we’re hoping to continue in the direction that he led the company in the last 30 years.”
A retirement party to honor Ken Carson is set for noon to 5 p.m. July 22 at That’s Entertainment’s location at 244 Park Ave., Worcester. More info: thatse.com.